The Pop Culture Death Trap Part 2: The Death of Beauty

Graeme Abernethy

Despite having seen it all before – the rock star and the blonde actress – we look on each such instance of celebrity death with the same mixture of surprise, curiosity, horror, and glee. Pop culture reflects our capacity to simultaneously ignore death and make of it an obsession.

The Beautiful and the Damned

Publisher: Penguin
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Publication date: 1998-04

The Great Gatsby

Publisher: Scribner
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Publication date: 2004-09
Things are sweeter when they're lost. I know–because once I wanted something and got it […] And when I got it it turned to dust in my hands.

-- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned

Celebrity worship in industries other than sports is less driven by the projection of absolutes of triumph and abjection. Other avenues of pop culture are similarly concerned, however – especially when anchored by images of youthful beauty – with narratives of life and death. This second entry in “The Pop Culture Death Trap” series shifts focus from symbolic to literal death, highlighting a continuing cultural preoccupation with mythic meaning in spite of the ever-accelerating pace of cultural change. Within this dynamic, popular forms, from novels to films and beyond, are born, evolve, and eventually will be consigned to the trash heap of history like those aging idols, yesterday commodified, and today disposed of in relative anonymity in the celebrity graveyard of the Hollywood Hills or, at least, of Sunset Boulevard.

The spectacle of death is a powerful, if typically elided, undercurrent of our celebrity culture. Implicit in the paparazzi baiting of such troubled or self-destructive figures as Lindsay Lohan or the briefly bald Britney Spears is, it can be argued, a simmering, mean-spirited expectation of death, like that observed by Nathanael West in his Day of the Locust portrait of the unhappy Americans who come to California to gawk, to die, and, if necessary, to kill, ideally at a movie premiere. Where else? Such spectacles of death are not always the conscious directive of our superficially festive culture, which is, nevertheless, continually if unpredictably punctuated by instances of death as entertainment. Despite having seen it all before – the rock star and the blonde actress – we look on each such instance with the same mixture of surprise, curiosity, horror, and glee. In this way, pop culture is reflective of our more general capacity to simultaneously ignore death and make of it an obsession.

As it does to all, death comes to celebrities in a variety of forms. We are made aware at periodic junctures, however, of the distinctive cultural potency bestowed on celebrities, both garden-variety and superstar, by the romantic consecration of youthful death. Confirming or exaggerating the importance of a given figure – say, James Dean – death enables the elevation of his image above the visual detritus of our culture. The ensuing translation to pure symbol, or Dean’s sudden embodiment of ideal beauty now frozen in time, concerns the relationship of death not only to art but to modern consumerism, with its intensification of practices of disposal, replacement, and obsolescence. This fetishization of death and selective remembrance both honors and thoroughly transforms the dead; it also subtly transforms our perception of the dying potentialities of the still living and newly forged celebrities remaining on our streets and screens. The fascination with celebrity death may only be in fact a logical extension of a culture predicated on disposability.

”He was handsome then if never before, bound for one of those immortal moments which come so radiantly that their remembered light is enough to see by for years.

She was a sun, radiant, growing, gathering light and storing it–then after an eternity pouring it forth in a glance, the fragment of a sentence, to that part of him that cherished all beauty and all illusion.”

-- Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned

There is a paradox by which the dead celebrity is a more malleable symbol than the living individual. Perhaps especially, the death of an actor in our visually driven culture represents an abstraction to the realm of pure image. The more impossibly lovely the actor, the more mournful their loss – by a similar logic, we might suppose, the more desirable their succumbing to youth-preserving death.

Dean certainly became a visual receptacle of fantasy or myth following his death, not least as an exceedingly beautiful pop culture archetype of generational rebellion. Rather than through any radical commitments, his rebel associations emerged largely from the fictional roles he played onscreen and the fast cars he famously drove, and which killed him. In his heroic posturing and hedonism, Dean prefigured the rock star deaths of subsequent decades. (He also prefigured the generic good looks of teen idols to the present day: Even Justin Bieber rode to fame at least in part on the strength of a replica James Dean quiff.)

Dean may indeed be seen as the prototypical icon of pop culture, a figure uniting popular heroism and sex appeal with quasi-religious worship. In the model perfected by the authors of Dean’s cultural legacy, the worshipper becomes consumer, purchasing and displaying proximity to the departed idol by way of films, posters, and t-shirts. Such expensive gazing affords a figure like Dean unique power; he becomes an object both of desire and vicarious identification for the viewer.

The Rebel Without a Cause’s evident link with youth culture is typical of consumerist icons. Only gesturally political, Dean provided a template for rebellion to be expressed and finally absorbed within the culture of capitalism. The commodification and cooptation of the rebellious impulses of young people may in fact be the key to capitalism’s perpetuation.

The cultural afterlife of Marilyn Monroe, on the other hand, illustrates the gratifications of an image of femininity that was vulnerable and individual yet undeniably manufactured or mass-reproduced. Andy Warhol observed and exploited this “seven-year itch” or apparent cultural need for repetition. It’s apparent also in recent portrayals of Monroe by Michelle Williams (in My Week With Marilyn) and Scarlett Johansson (in a Dolce and Gabbana ad campaign in 2010).

As with James Franco playing Dean in a 2001 TV movie, these instances of actorly dress-up reveal an absurd cycle of wish fulfillment and fantasy at pop culture’s core. Why else should we be asked to suspend disbelief in order to accept a recognizable actor in the role of another recognizable actor? Simply, to aid in the retrenchment of the cult of consumerist nostalgia.

”There was no great literary tradition; there was only the tradition of the eventful death of every literary tradition.”

-- Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned

In 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald achieved a rare and genuine, if short-lived, fame as 23-year-old literary celebrity. The terms of his early reputation were established following the publication of his first and most immediately successful novel, This Side of Paradise, a charming if ragged Bildungsroman fictionalizing the author’s early romantic entanglements and his Princeton years. His celebrity status did him few favors with many among his initial critics, and, with the arrival of a more proletarian literary fashion in the ‘30s, the perceived obsolescence of his prodigals and debutantes seemed further pronounced. Even The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, fell for a time out of print.

In his letters and essays, Fitzgerald indulged a hard-luck narrative in which a faddish public abandoned him to frustration and ill health. What many (and perhaps he) regarded as his own wasted potential, his dissolution in drunkenness and anxiety, at least retrospectively, became part of his legend. The crucial factor in his popular resurrection was, of course, the romantic consecration enabled by his death, in 1940, at 44. By reissuing The Great Gatsby, with the fragment The Last Tycoon, in 1941, his publisher Scribner’s, at least, demonstrated an awareness of the cultural appetite for narratives of youthful death – in this case, both Fitzgerald’s and Gatsby’s. By the mid-‘40s, The Great Gatsby was firmly established as a central document in American literature. It currently sells some 400,000 copies annually, an impressive feat for a story telling us that the hero’s fondest desire – to repossess an ever-receding past – is, finally, doomed.

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From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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